August 2007, Peter Connelly, a cherubic, 17-month old, blond-haired, blue eyed boy was unlawfully killed. He was beaten to death. Among other injuries he suffered were broken ribs, a broken back and a missing finger tip. His mother and her boyfriend and boyfriend’s brother were found guilty of those crimes. This is not the story about the 260 children that have died since then. Twenty-six of them known to the local authorities. Or the story of the five to ten familial homicides every week. This is the story of a Salem type- media frenzy in which social workers and care staff became national hate figures. 1.2 million signatures were delivered to Number Ten Downing Street by The Sun – I almost called it a newspaper – urging the government to take action and sack social work staff. After 26 days and 1.4 million voices it announced the success of this strategy. Death threats were made. Sharon Shoesmith, director of child services with Haringey Council was sacked. Her daughters were also targeted and moved to a safe place by the police. Marie Ward the social worker directly involved with the case never returned to the house she had lived in – it was no longer safe. Gillie Christou, social work team leader was named and shamed. The consultant paediatrician Dr Zaybaht, who examined Peter, was vilified with headlines and vitriol like ‘Paki go home’, and ‘Towelhead’. A Muslim woman, and a qualified doctor of medicine, it seemed a step too far for a xenophobic British public to take. After attempting suicide she did go ‘home’.
The lead for this kind of narrative came from the leader of the opposition, David Cameron. It is a sackable offence to knowingly tell a lie in the House of Commons, but Cameron managed a few in his brief foray into the debate. His narrative line was quite simple. Here was a 17-year old woman on benefits (she was 28) living with her boyfriend, Stephen Bartlett, who was illiterate (?) and would you believe it? Haringey Council, the same council that had failed Victoria Climbie had received £100 million of government money, every year (that’s a very precise figure, rounded up, no doubt by Tory inflation). Cameron asked, what was the government going to do about? But, of course, he wasn’t really asking. He was scoring political points.
Ed Balls representing the government. Kim Holt representing Great Ormond Street Hospital and its subsidiary care unit St Anne’s were Patrick was examined; Ofsted, initially, compiled a report given Haringey a rating of 3, the equivalent of a gold star, subsequently, oh dear, somehow lost that report and downgrade it to 1, which means social services were in crisis –which they were, as all social work departments always are; The Metropolitan Police who failed to take any kind of forensic documentation of the child’s injuries, or to notice that Baby P had a new ‘stepdad’, but, oh dear, that was social work’s fault. Look over there, it wasn’t us guv. The politicians, the police and the media had found the culprits. Social Workers. Burn them. A simplistic narrative often catches fire, better than any attempts at the truth.
Two things worth considering. Sharon Shoesmith has been unable to work since then. But she received a six-figure sum for unfair dismissal. An unnamed whistle-blower told how the Ofsted inspectorate tampered with official documents. A consultant paediatrician who had made allegations of systemic failure and a lack of support at St Anne’s was offered £150 000 by Great Ormond Street Hospital, basically to shut up. Worst of all. David Cameron is now Prime Minister, no doubt children don’t die on his watch.